Your putting stroke is fine; How to stop getting in your own way

Oh, the agony of putting. How can something so simple become so difficult? Well, it’s not your stroke. It’s fine. It’s your non-stop, chattering, interfering mind that’s the problem. 

As a coach, I can never take credit for scores that my clients shoot.

They hit the shots. They have done the work. I can open the door, but the clients must walk through. 

But it is really rewarding when I’m able to introduce clients to a new experience so they can self-coach themselves to achieve some degree of mastery in golf, and in life. It’s been a great summer of working with golfers on their short games, particularly putting.

From mid-handicappers to scratch players, putting can be extremely frustrating, even though it’s the simplest motion in golf. Their common experience is that their minds are full of “chatter—get it there, don’t blow it by.” They are forever applying some kind of technique (“accelerate, keep still,” etc.). They are in a chronic state of instructing, judging and, usually, admonishing themselves.

How about you? Well, it doesn’t need to be that way; you can improve your putting.
Here’s the first thing you need to understand: There’s nothing wrong with you.

There’s nothing horrible about your stroke. You didn’t miss out when the golf gods handed out hand-eye coordination. You didn’t start the game too late. You didn’t develop bad habits you cannot shake. Etc., etc.,

You’re fine.

It’s what’s happening in your mind—the critical inner voice that constantly nags you, and the seemingly never-ending thought parade. (By the way, you’re completely normal. It’s the way our brains are wired.) Your chattering mind makes you tense, prevents your body from doing what it can do naturally, and sends you on an emotional roller coaster.

Your mind is causing you to get in your own way; AKA self-interfere.

But you can gain back control from your mind. After a summer of doing various exercises, like the one below, one of my clients says that he’s longer quaking over short putts, his weight and line are usually pretty good, and sometimes, he makes more medium length putts. “I feel like two different people from today to the old days.”

But here’s the thing. I have not given him or any of my clients one piece of advice about how to putt. Zero technical stuff. I do a lot of coaching long-distance. I don’t even watch them putt. Everyone just uses what they have.

What I’ve done is coach them about awareness. More to the point, how to be aware of their minds. In essence, they are learning to concentrate and become present. 

I love working with golfers on putting because they see the difference almost immediately, and they see how learning to quiet their minds can spill over and help their entire game.

There are a number of exercises that you can do to begin quieting your mind. One of the easiest is what I call the Baseline Exercise.*

Start by placing a ball one inch from a hole. Putt it in. It seems almost silly it’s so easy. From one inch, who’s going to miss?  

Then move the ball back to six inches, and putt it in. Then about 12 inches, and putt it.

From these short distances, there’s no thinking. It’s dead easy. You just do it.

This is your baseline experience. Notice that your mind is quiet. You likely feel relaxed and your stroke flows. You just putt the ball into the hole.

Keep moving the ball back in six-inch increments and putting the ball in the hole. At a certain distance as you get farther away from the hole, you will become aware that your experience has changed. It’s likely that you are giving yourself some kind of instruction about your stroke. Or you catch yourself taking a second or third look at the cup, or you’re taking longer to pull the putter back.

This is the object of the exercise—becoming aware when you are no longer operating from the baseline experience of no thinking. You are now in your head. 

Now compare the difference between the two experiences. What is going on for you when you are in your head? Are you thinking, hoping, fearing, guiding, wishing? 

Resume the exercise from one inch. And keep pulling the ball back in six-inch increments. As you go, just be aware of what’s happening. It’s like you are an observer, just along for the ride, witnessing what’s happening. There’s no trying.

This time, when you catch yourself thinking at a certain length, just stop. You are aware of what’s happened, and that you’re once again in your head. Now, set up to the ball again, and see if you can stroke it with the same sense of freedom as when you were having the baseline experience?

Again, just notice the difference between the strokes when you are close to the cup, and when you finding yourself thinking.

If you are like the majority of golfers, you will find that when you are in the state of the baseline experience, the stroke feels easy, it flows and—bonus—you make a lot more putts.

Another one of my clients has been working with this and similar exercises all summer. “I’m no longer going through panic or turmoil on short putts,” he said. “It’s so much easier.”

Of course, many golfers may read this and think that the exercise is like some kind of secret tip. In the end, this exercise and others like it, will help your score over time.

But the greater win to me is that it allows people to coach themselves on how to be present. It makes golf and many parts of life much richer, and we can draw on the gold that we all have within us as a consequence of being a human being. 

*I must give credit where it is due. I developed a lot of my coaching from my experience with legendary coach Fred Shoemaker and I borrow liberally from exercises that I learned from his Extraordinary Golf Schools. Check out his brilliant book Extraordinary Putting: Transforming the Whole Game.


About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!